$3.6 million ship disappears on Doomsday Glacier

$3.6 million ship disappears on Doomsday Glacier

The submarine Ran navigates icy waters to explore massive glaciers.
Philipp Staedt/University of Gothenburg

  • An unmanned submarine belonging to the University of Gothenburg has disappeared in Antarctica.
  • The submarine was exploring the Thwaites Glacier to study its possible effects on sea level rise.
  • Despite search efforts, the submarine was not found.

A submarine called Ran disappeared last month after diving under Antarctica. The 23-foot-long instrument was just one of three scientific submarines of its kind.

Unlike the submarine Titan, which exploded with five passengers on board when it descended to explore the wreck of the Titanic, the Rann was unoccupied when it mysteriously disappeared.

Rann’s disappearance is a tragic loss to climate change research as scientists were using the autonomous machine to study the melting activity of the Thwaites Glacier, also known as the ‘Doomsday Glacier’.

It’s also a loss for the University of Gothenburg, which bought Ran for 38 million Swedish krona, or about $3.6 million U.S. dollars, in 2015, the university said in a press release.

“This was the second time we took Rann to the Thwaites Glacier to document the area under the ice,” Anna Wallen, project leader and professor of physical oceanography at the University of Gothenburg, said in a press release.

Investigating the “Doomsday Glacier”

Anna Whalen, professor of physical oceanography, stands in front of Ran.
Olof Lönnheid/University of Gothenburg

The Rann was a rare type of submarine that enabled researchers to explore depths previously considered inaccessible.

It can dive hundreds of feet underwater to explore the lower parts of glaciers and help scientists study the melting of glaciers due to climate change.

“Even if you see the ice melting and its movements from satellite data, from RAN we get close-ups of the underside of the ice and information about exactly the mechanisms behind the melting,” Wåhlin said in the press release.

That’s why Wåhlin and her team chose Rann to check out the Thwaites Glacier because it is actively melting.

The Thwaites Glacier is one of the largest glaciers in the world and could dramatically raise global sea levels if it collapsed completely.

Thwaites owes its ominous nickname “Doomsday Glacier” in part to its enormous size. It is the widest glacier on Earth, about 80 miles wide, and its melting currently contributes about 4% of global sea level rise.

If it collapsed completely, global sea levels would rise by 25 inches.

Unlike other remotely operated unmanned underwater vehicles, RAN navigates these depths autonomously. Its route is pre-programmed and it uses a navigation system to find its way back to the surface after completing the dive.

Ran scattered on the surface of the frozen Antarctic waters.
Anna Wallen/University of Gothenburg

On her latest mission, Rann was collecting close-up images and data of the underside of Thwaites when researchers lost contact. He did not appear again at the pre-programmed return point.

Needle in a haystack

The search team searched for Ran using audio search equipment, helicopters and drones, but all were unsuccessful.

“It’s a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack, but without knowing where the haystack is,” Whalen said in the press release. “At this point, Ran’s batteries are dead. All we know is that something unexpected happened under the ice. We suspect he got into trouble, and then something prevented him from getting out.”

At this time, all search efforts have been cancelled, Louise Newman, the ship’s director at the University of Gothenburg, told Business Insider via email.

A huge cavity about 1,000 feet long grows at the bottom of the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica.
NASA/OIB/Jeremy Harbeck

“The Korean ship IB Aron has left the area and there is no opportunity to conduct further searches. Unfortunately, it has disappeared,” Newman wrote.

The university’s Department of Marine Sciences hopes to eventually replace Rann and continue its expeditions to Thwaites.

“Thanks to RAN, we became the first researchers in the world to enter Thwaites in 2019,” Whalen said in her statement, adding that “the data we receive from RAN are unique in the world, and of great value for international research.”

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